Derby dreams, disappointments, and horsemens’ hopes

July 5, 2023 8:35 PM
  • Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports
July 5, 2023 8:35 PM
  • Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports

The 2023 Triple Crown races are now over and, as you may have heard, we did not see a Triple Crown winner in 2023. No horse even took two of three, as Mage won the Derby, National Treasure the Preakness, and Arcangelo the Belmont Stakes, continuing the five-year-long mini-trend of different mounts winning each jewel in the crown: not since Justify won the Triple Crown in 2018 has a single horse won more than one Triple Crown race in a season.

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The author with Secretariat owner Penny Chenery in 2003

Arcangelo’s length-and-a-half victory was particularly notable; the horse is trained by Jena Antonucci, who with the victory became the first female trainer to win the famous, and famously punishing, mile-and-a-half-long Belmont Stakes. This year also marked the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown run in 1973, during which he won the Kentucky Derby in Stakes’ Record time, the Preakness also in Stakes’ Record time – both records still stand today – and, of course, his legendary 31-length victory in 2:24 flat in the Belmont, which set a world record for a mile-and-a-half on dirt which also still stands and which looks to be one of the more unbreakable records in sports (the second-fastest Belmont was Easy Goer’s trip in 1989, which was a full two seconds slower than Secretariat’s).

2023’s three-year-olds will continue to battle for the remainder of the season, trying to become the Eclipse Champion three-year-old.  The final big races will be the Haskell in July at Monmouth Park, the Jim Dandy at Saratoga in early August, and the Travers, colloquially known as the Mid-Summer Derby, which will be run later in August, also during the Saratoga meet.

Besides the three Triple Crown race winners, other late developing three-year-olds will also be running and trying to secure consideration for the end of year honors. The final big race of the season is the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race which also includes the best older horses, all of whom will be battling for the most prestigious honor of all, Horse of the Year. The Classic began in 1984, long after the retirement of Secretariat and other legends like Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid. Several three-year-olds have distinguished themselves by winning the Derby and the Classic: Sunday Silence in 1989, Unbridled in 1990, and Authentic in 2020. But the only Triple Crown winner to also capture the Classic – the Grand Slam of American thoroughbred racing – was the monumental American Pharoah.

Turn of Fate working out

So now we turn back to the story of my thoroughbreds (spoiler alert: none of mine ever won the Derby.) At one point, my partners and I bought a horse named Turn of Fate, who had run 21 times with a single victory when we purchased him. He was a big, lumbering horse, and we got him very cheaply, but our trainer thought he might get better as he filled out. Three months later, with our new trainer working with him, we put him in a race with a nine-horse field. He went off at odds of 39-1 and lumbered up the stretch late for a fifth-place finish. Following that effort, he finished 18 and then 13 lengths behind the winner in his next two starts. A sixth-place effort at 31-1 in his next start naturally didn’t really get our hearts racing, no pun intended, but he was a spirited guy, with a lot of pluck, and so we decided to give him one more chance. He showed a little improvement in this next race, finishing fourth and earning a small check. That was reasonably gratifying, and he was the only horse we had at the time, but with only that single win in, to that point, 26 starts, we felt we had no choice but to stop paying for his racing career. But what, we wondered, do we do with him? The answer, as it happens, came to us via a kind, brilliant woman named Alison.

Alison on her horse Dulce

Alison is a professional chemist by day – and, not incidentally, my daughter-in-law – but after work and on weekends, she is also an accomplished equestrian. She has captured several significant awards, like the United States Equestrian Association (USEA) Senior Rider of the Year, USEA Adult Rider of the Year, and the USEA Master Beginner Novice of the Year. Alison competed in the 3 Day Event category, which is a combination of dressage on day one, long distance Cross Country (up to three miles) over jumps, including logs, walls, and water, on day two, and, finally, on day three, stadium jumping. A grueling three-day competition for both horse and rider. With Alison’s background and consent, we sent Turn of Fate to her. After several months of a new kind of training under Alison’s direction, she entered the old guy in a couple of shows, and old Turner began to display some interest. So, when we got an offer for him, we pretty readily accepted it, and off he went to a new owner. Years later, we discovered that the new owner had developed him into quite an accomplished competitor, albeit of a slightly different type, and had at one point turned down a purchase offer of $20,000.

The author’s racing silks

Our first homebred mount out of our mare Strike Number One was a sweet little filly we named Umpus and Marge, whom I’ve mentioned briefly before. As a three-year-old, she was in training for her initial race. She showed promise, but it was obvious she was not going to a champion. But we started her in a Maiden Special Weight race (MSW), which is for horses that are not in the race to be claimed. Almost every great champion began their career in such a race; the purses are very high and the competition fierce. We entered her in this tough race as a way of gauging what kind of runner she’d be without taking the chance that she’d be claimed. In preparation for her first contest, I had to design my owner’s racing silks – the brightly-colored clothes that would be worn by any jockey riding a horse I owned. I decided on a gold background, with alternating purple and red diamonds. Purple and gold were the colors of the school at which I was then working, and red and gold honored the school at which some friends were teaching.

The thrill of seeing this filly, named after my late parents, listed in the racing program, with my name listed beneath hers as owner/breeder, was a legitimate dream come true. I was overwhelmed. So, standing against the rail, surrounded by friends and family, we watched as Marge broke from the gate in sixth, carrying odds of 36-1, and then proceeded to gradually fall back until she finished last of the eleven entrants. I was still in a state of euphoria – not because she’d finished last, of course, but because my dream had come true.

Obviously, Umpus and Marge was not a wonder filly, so in her next race we dropped her in class to give her a better chance. This race was also for maidens, but this time they had to be entered to be claimed. After her first effort, we figured our chances were pretty strong that no one would buy her.  She broke from the gate on top and led for about three-quarters of the race but faded to finish fifth at odds of 4-1. By now it was late fall, and the meet was winding down, so we chose to run her one more time before the meet ended. She went off again at 4-1 but did not show the speed she had in her previous start and ultimately fell back to finish seventh. A winter of rest and relaxation at the farm was now in store for her, and hope for a better year from her the following spring, when she would race as a four-year-old.